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The Crypt of Civilization: Atlanta's Massive Time Capsule

Mar 4th, 2020

Have you ever thought about what you would say to someone in the future? 

If you had a chance to send a message to humankind thousands of years from now, what would your message say? Maybe you would talk about the political climate, the most popular music or maybe what you’d envision the world to be like in a thousand years. Perhaps you’d send a message of warning about wars, corruption or strife, as history does tend to repeat itself often.

We may not be able to pull off a Marty McFly and go back in time to give humanity a heads-up, but we can certainly send a message to the future. All we need is a little time, which, thankfully, is on our side.

And this is exactly what the president of Atlanta’s Oglethorpe University thought in 1936 when he decided to build the world’s first modern time capsule.  

Dr. Thornwell Jacobs became president of Oglethorpe University in 1915 after re-founding it following damage done by the Civil War. Jacobs, who both researched, taught and wrote about bygone cultures and civilizations, began to wonder how future generations would remember and study our current world, just as we study and remember ancient history today. His extensive studies into world history showed him just how little there was left behind to learn from, and he began thinking about ways in which our current world could “leave messages” for future generations to learn from.

In 1936, Jacobs officially began plans for the most extensive time capsule yet. Thomas Kimmwood Peters, the inventor of the first microfilm camera, was hired to be the project’s archivist and to record all the collected information on microfilm and film footage. Microfilm is a length of film that contains documents cataloged at about one twenty-fifth of the original size, making it a durable and efficient way of physically storing information. 

Peters and some of Oglethorpe’s student assistants spent three years recording and storing almost six thousand years’ worth of human history. At that time, science and archaeology placed human civilization to be about 6,177 years old. At least, that was as far back as the Egyptian calendar, which went back to 4241 B.C., went. Jacobs decided that the crypt’s opening date should be another 6,177 years from the idea’s formation, as many believed 1936 to be an adequate halfway point for the human race. 

The crypt, it was decided, would only open again in the year 8113 A.D. It was up to Peters and his crew to make sure that there was enough documentation in the vault to provide an accurate story of what they thought would be the first half of human existence. No pressure.

In the end, the collection of human history contained about 640,000 pages of information stored on microfilm: these included religious texts, classic novels and theater plays. There were also photographs, short videos, artifacts, toys, pieces of then-modern technology, voice recordings and so much more. 

Here are some of the items included in the time capsule:

  • 2 recordings of bird songs
  • 1 set of Lincoln Logs
  • 2 Lenox china vases, 1 blue china bowl
  • 1 Masonic deposit (5 badges, I metal plaque in case, sealed)
  • voice recordings of Stalin, Hitler, Roosevelt, Popeye the Sailor and a champion hog caller
  • a container of beer
  • cartoons used for teaching the English language
  • seeds of flowers, plants and trees
  • 10 samples of textile upholstery
  • a small Kodak camera
  • and so, so much more!

In 1940, this entire collection was placed in a small room in the basement of the Phoebe Hearst Hall at the university. The room, which only measured about 200 square feet and is ten feet high, was chosen because it was watertight and would not allow any moisture to seep inside. 

May 25, 1940 was the last time the contents of the crypt would see daylight for over six thousand years. The crypt’s massive, stainless steel door creaked closed under the supervision of the city mayor, the U.S. postmaster general and the state governor. Among the very last items added to the vault was a message recorded by Jacobs to the people who will open the vault in 8113.

“The world is engaged in burying our civilization forever, and here in this crypt we leave it to you.”

The crypt has been sealed for almost 80 years now. No one knows whether the contents have aged in the crypt or not, or whether the books and pages left in the nitrogen-sealed containers have broken down. The International Time Capsule Society watches over this and many other time capsules in the hope of preserving them as best as possible for future generations. 

The only marker signifying the steel door as anything other than a sealed-off room is a small plaque above it. Here’s what it says.

“This Crypt contains memorials of the civilization which existed in the United States and the world at large during the first half of the twentieth century. In receptacles of stainless steel, in which the air has been replaced by inert gasses, are encyclopedias, histories, scientific works, special editions of newspapers, travelogues, travel talks, cinema reels, models, phonograph records, and similar materials from which an idea of the state and nature of the civilization which existed from 1900 to 1950 can be ascertained. No jewels or precious metals are included.

We depend upon the laws of the county of DeKalb, the State of Georgia, and the government of the United States and their heirs, assigns, and successors, and upon the sense of sportsmanship of posterity for the continued preservation of this vault until the year 8113, at which time we direct that it shall be opened by authorities representing the above governmental agencies and the administration of Oglethorpe University. Until that time we beg of all persons that this door and the contents of the crypt within may remain inviolate.”

So, if you live in our Buckhead luxury apartments in Atlanta or luxury apartments near Lenox Mall, stop by Oglethorpe University to see the world’s first modern time capsule for yourself. It’s not everyday you get to send a message 6,000 years into the future!

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/Free-Photos

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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